Riders defensive line coach Ed Philion knew he would be dealing with a green defensive line – and he didn’t mean the jerseys they were playing in.
The Roughriders front four has had a lot of different looks this season from a lot of different players. Philion estimates up to 17 guys have given it a go, but things have started to settle in now.
“I think now that Willie (Jefferson)’s came in, he’s kind of settled us down a little bit.” Philion said Tuesday. “Then (Jonathan) Newsome and AC (Leonard) and Irv (Corvey Irvin), they’re starting to get what we’re trying to do here and starting to affect games.”
The defence affected in a big way against Montreal, amassing six sacks in the first half of the game on Saturday. Two of those were from Leonard, who started out the season with a splash but saw his sack production taper off as he played more games.
Turns out Leonard was playing with a bit of a shoulder injury.
“That’s not an excuse but it just been nagging and bothering me the whole season,” he said. “And now I feel good and feel better and feel like I can play fast.”
Speed, according to Philion, is Leonard’s biggest advantage against opposing quarterbacks. Leonard was a tight end in college before the Roughriders converted him to the defensive line. It’s a project that’s beginning to really bear fruit.
“Once he realized his speed can become power for him – and I think he’s starting to get it now – he can defend anybody, you’re not going to outrun him,” Philion said.
“AC’s got all the ability in the world,” he added. He shouldn’t be here right now, he should be making a million dollars or two down south. Hopefully that switch clicks for him and he’s consistent for us day in and day out. He’s making strides to become that kind of player.”
And really all of them are. Leonard said bringing in Jefferson – who in three weeks already has three sacks himself – was the spark the line needed and now they’re ready to show other teams what they’ve got.
“We all just kind of come together and say it was time to turn that corner, it’s time for us to get more sacks, it’s time for us to be in the backfield and cause havoc on the quarterbacks.”
Head coach Chris Jones is seeing the progress too, noting that Leonard and Newsome have continued to develop and the Irvin has done a really good job leading the line. After a few weeks where things are looking up Jones can’t wait to see how they stack up against a hot B.C. Lions offence.
“The whole deal is you need to be able to line up, rush forward and get pressure and we’re finally able to do that a little bit, so it will be interesting to see against a well coached BC team exactly where we stack up,” Jones said.
Philion is hoping for good things against B.C., too, but he also knows the best may come next year when the lineman return, have the playbook down and are able to work on the nuances.
“What we’re seeing at the end of the season really looks bright for next year for us,” he said.